It seems we’re all in a knot about this interfaith business these days. The Pew Survey results have sobered us and made us acutely aware of just how many of the tribe are marrying non-Jews. As a convert, I’m a little bemused by the whole fracas. As a small-town Jew, I’m bewildered.
Let me tell you what happens when an interfaith family wants to join our little synagogue in Northern Ontario. We smile. We all rush up to introduce ourselves. We make sure they can find their place in the siddur. Often someone will stand beside them to help them along. We feed them. We probably overwhelm them with kindness a little and, if they keep coming, we start assigning them jobs because, well, we’re a small bunch, and many hands make light work. In short, we treat them exactly the way we treat a family with two Jewish parents.
Do we ask which parent is Jewish? No. Eventually we find out but by then it’s in the context of a burgeoning friendship, not a halakhic inquisition. We don’t ask because frankly, we don’t care. We’re so happy that we have another family that cares enough about Judaism to affiliate with a synagogue, the rest simply doesn’t matter very much. We don’t have the numerical luxury of splitting hairs.
This fall we held the bar mitzvah of the youngest son of one our families. This boy’s father is Jewish, and his mother is not. His family has worked hard to raise their sons Jewish and cared enough to get them both through years of Hebrew school. What would we have had to gain by turning them away? We would have lost the father as a community member, and the children certainly wouldn’t have been nearly as connected to Judaism as they are today.
Earlier this year, I was giving a presentation about Judaism to a local church group. We do a lot of those in our small town, so much so that we joke about opening a chapter of “Christians for Moses.” During the question and answer period, one fellow asked me how I would feel if my child wanted to become a Christian when he grew up. I responded, in typical Jewish fashion, with a question: How would he feel if his child wanted to become Jewish? He asked what that would involve, which got me talking about the halakha for conversion and the principle of matrilineal descent. When I was finished, he looked at me quizzically and asked: “Don’t you want people to be Jewish?” I didn’t have an answer.
My neighbor’s son (what are the chances that we’d have Jewish neighbors, I know) married a non-Jewish woman, and they are raising their kids in the big city. They were turned away from several Reform synagogues, and told they would have to convert their kids in order to join. They finally found a home at a secular humanist synagogue. She is from a devoutly Christian family and yet, there they are, working very hard to raise their kids Jewish.
I think that should be enough. I think it’s incredibly sad that there are synagogues turning away committed families, alienating people, practically guaranteeing that those families won’t raise another generation of Jews. How is that in anyone’s best interests?!? We do want people to be Jewish… don’t we?